Commodities, Capitalism and Globalization - Introduction

By Barber, Pauline G.; Lem, Winnie | Anthropologica, July 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Commodities, Capitalism and Globalization - Introduction


Barber, Pauline G., Lem, Winnie, Anthropologica


Much, probably too much, has been written about globalization. According to Kalb (2000: 3), globalization has become the dominant political and economic discourse of the developed world-"a grand narrative of our time." As part of public discourse, it is ideological to be sure, yet also traceable in political action and in social and economic effects. Indeed, before the onset of discourses about globalization, the global itself was exposed, subjected to scrutiny in the various discussions that have interlinked anthropology and different projects focussing upon transnational relations and translocal reconfigurations. The anthropologists who have contributed to these discussions also embrace a global historical perspective in their work and many have noted how our discipline itself became historically embedded in various regions of the world colonized by Europeans and later the United States (e.g. Anderson, 1998; Asad, 1973; Nash, 2002). Thus, discourses concerned with the processes, relations and forces that transcend the local and the national, now discussed as globalization, have circulated widely in the anthropological context through both time and space (see for example Friedman, this volume; Wolf, 1969; Wolf and Mintz, 1957).

In the current context, anthropological writing continues to grapple with the global and efforts are devoted to defining the forces and effects of globalization. Numerous questions have been raised in the many debates that have occurred over the political and economic consequences of globalization as well as its social and cultural possibilities. It is not our intention here to revisit the familiar terrain of different debates in anthropology regarding the nature of globalization, or indeed, to present another exegesis on globalization, itself. It is not the case that we think that enough has been said, nor that new insights cannot be received as processes of globalization continue to unfold. On the contrary, we feel that more must be said and other insights offered. Our contribution here is not to abstractly theorize globalization, nor to align ourselves with one or other school of thought in the debates. Rather, we offer a view of globalization through the concrete. In this volume, our focus is on the commodity, and the political, economic and cultural conditions implicated in its production and circulation around the globe.

While reflections on the nature of globalization are extensive, the exploration of its relation to commodities seems rather more limited and specialized, taken on by only a very few in anthropology (see Haugerud, Stone and Little 2000, for example). Still, it is arguable if this area of investigation is any more recent or newer than the current focus on globalization. The work of Mintz (1979, 1985), Roseberry (1996) and Wolf (1982) reminds us that indeed discussion about commodities, the development of a world economy of capitalism and global trade, preceded the period when globalization came to be the grand narrative of our time. In problematizing the relationship between globalization and commodities our perspective reinforces Stone, Haugerud and Little's assertion that a focus on commodities "offers a window on large-scale processes that are profoundly transforming our era" (2000: 1). We would add that an ethnographically sensitive study of commodities not only enhances our understandings of globalization as a transformative force in the real world, but it is also a prerequisite, as Friedman (this volume) asserts, for informed engagement in debate. Indeed, we refrain from providing an overview of the contemporary debates in this Introduction as many of these are actually addressed in this volume by the authors themselves. In their efforts to detail the social and political relations of production, distribution, deployment and consumption of such global commodities as wine, cognac, gold, Rai music, olive oil, used clothing and migrant labour, each of the authors locates their discussion within a framework of analysis, or a debate that appears in the globalization literature.

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